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July 03, 2006

Arthur Conan Doyle and the Great Wyrley Outrages: Arthur & George - Julian Barnes

Posted by David Womersley

Arthur & George
by Julian Barnes
Pp. 360. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005
Hardback, £17.99; Paperback, £10.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Julian Barnes's Arthur & George.

In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes offers an imaginative exploration of a curious human interaction which occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Great Wyrley Outrages were a series of maimings or cuttings of animals which took place in the Staffordshire countryside.

The perpetrators (taunting letters claimed that the crimes were the work of a gang) were never found, but one George Edalji, the half-caste son of a Scottish mother and a Parsee father, was wrongfully convicted and served time in jail before being pardoned and released. Edalji's case became a cause célèbre in England, a kind of minor affaire Dreyfus, and his chief defender was Arthur Conan Doyle. It is the unlikely connection of this victim and this champion which supplies the basis of Barnes's novel.

The narrative form of the novel brings out well the strangeness of the two men's convergence. Alternating fragments of narrative, entitled either "Arthur" or "George", give us shards of the childhood of both men, and establish their very different backgrounds: George, the frail and short-sighted son of a clergyman raised in a household of almost stifling correctness, Arthur the physically-vigorous offspring of a raffish father and a powerful mother to whom he was absolutely devoted.

It is a form which also allows Barnes to bring off the first big and important coup of this book, namely the controlling of the revelation that George is not (as in an act of casual racism every reader – except of course that handful with prior familiarity with the Great Wyrley Outrages – will assume) a white Anglo-Saxon. The atmosphere in the Edalji household has become tense: an unsatisfactory maid has been turned out, and anonymous, defamatory letters have begun to be received at the Vicarage. George is warned by his father to be vigilant. One evening George, who is studying law in Birmingham, finds a large key on the doorstep as he returns home. The police are sent for, and Sergeant Upton takes George's statement:

Upton ... takes out a notebook and pencil.


"You know my name."

"Name, I said."

The Sergeant really could be more civil, George thinks. "George."

"Yes. Go on."


"Go on."


"Go on."

"You know my surname. It's the same as my father"s. And my mother's."

"Go on, I say, you uppish little fellow."


"Ah yes," says the Sergeant. "Now I think you'd better spell that out for me."

It is a brilliant stroke of narrative design. In the first place, the implication of the reader in Sergeant Upton's racism (by means of our assumption that George will naturally be white) applies a salutary jolt, although its consequences are not quite as one at first imagines they will be. For the wrongful conviction of Edalji cannot, as is insisted on at a number of points in the novel, be accounted for fully by reference to the racist attitudes of early twentieth-century England.

A lesser writer than Barnes might have seized on the story of the Great Wyrley Outrages and written in response to it nothing more than an anti-racist tract. Barnes's imagination is both more fair and more subtle than that. Racism in Arthur & George is not the book's end, but rather provides Barnes with a route to his true subject, which is that of prejudice considered more generally and almost under the rubric of epistemology. How do we know what we believe we know? If our grounds of knowing can never be complete, can we then ever be entirely free of prejudice? It is in this connection that the fact of Edalji's defender being Conan Doyle is wonderfully deepened and explored by Barnes.

Conan Doyle is known in the first place as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and there is of course a piquancy (which Barnes has his own characters reflect upon) in the fact of its being the writer who was responsible for the creation of this paragon of secure and brilliant deduction who also takes it upon himself to play the part of detective in the case of George Edalji.

But Barnes is also fascinated by Conan Doyle the proponent of psychical research – a belief which now seems preposterous, but which in Conan Doyle's own day was eagerly received by a generation of parents who had lost children to war and were desperate to keep alive the hope of contact, as well as being countenanced by scientific figures such as Sir Oliver Lodge, who was not only a bereaved parent (read his Raymond, or Life and Death) but whose work on radio waves seemed to provide some rational grounds for faith in psychical phenomena, and who in fact has a brief walk-on part in Arthur & George.

Finally, Barnes also weaves into his portrait of Conan Doyle a circumstance of his private life. Conan Doyle's first wife, Touie, becomes consumptive, and he is told by her doctors that on no account must she become pregnant. This catastrophe sets Conan Doyle's chivalry at odds with his physical vigour. A régime is loyally constructed around the non-negotiable demands of the invalid Touie, and so chivalry is satisfied; but Conan Doyle also embarks on an intense (although unconsummated) relationship with Jean Leckie, who, when a decent interval has elapsed after the death of Touie, becomes Conan Doyle's second wife. Conan Doyle imagines that Touie has been unaware of his relationship with Jean, but one of the book's later surprises is that, in this belief he has been mistaken.

The core of this novel, then, is the imperfect overlap between what is true, what we wish to be true, and what we can prove to be true. Fact, desire and demonstration: the story of Arthur & George is triangulated by these three powerful forces, and the result is an invitation to reflect anew on the potential complexity of what we can mean when we say we know something. Hovering around the edges of the novel, but in an apotropous relation to it, is the celebrated Holmesian dictum, that when the impossible has been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true. Now, that really is fiction.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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I urge anyone who has not already done so to get a copy of this book - it will not be enough to borrow one - you will want to own such a splendid novel with its overtones of mystery, possible racism and brilliant research. I read it again and again - but I am still never exactly sure of George's innocence. This book holds you - you will carry it around with you for a few days until you get to the end. Then a few months later you will pick it up and start again. Arthur Conan Doyle (through his hero Sherlock Holmes) seems to be almost writing the book in tandem with Julian Barnes. It's magnificent.

Posted by: Jan Barrett at February 6, 2011 10:16 AM

I agree that it’s a very fine novel.

As a former Head of History at Great Wyrley High School, however, my mind is beset with other considerations. My book 'Outrage: The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes', Vanguard Press, contains, among other things, an examination of the extent to which 'Arthur and George' reflects the actual historical record. In fact there are some references in the novel which must count as mistakes: George's mother for example was English, not Scottish, and when she wrote to the Home Secretary about George’s case she glowed with pride about her English origins. At other points Julian Barnes departs quite deliberately from the evidence, but the general reader cannot know which parts are fact and which are fiction; the character Harry Charlesworth, for example, never existed, but he is such a reliable and sympathetic figure in the novel that the evidence he produces for Conan Doyle is much more credible than that provided by the two ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ Conan Doyle actually used, and this twists the plot in George’s favour. As for characters who actually lived, Julian Barnes uses their names but makes no claims to describe them as they actually were; the grandson of the inspector who arrested George feels unhappy about the way his grandfather is portrayed.


Posted by: Roger Oldfield at January 29, 2012 07:33 PM
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